When voters head to the polls next week, they’ll see three names on the ballot for governor and two apiece for other statewide offices — and 21 candidates for one Jefferson District Court judge slot.
The winner from among the cluttered field will fill the seat left vacant earlier this year by the retirement of 30th District Judge Michelle Stengel. Her retirement about a year into her four-year term “created a unique circumstance,” said Scott Furkin, executive director of the Louisville Bar Association.
The vacancy occurred after a primary election could be scheduled, so there was no opportunity to trim the field to just two candidates, he said.
“It became a winner-takes-all-type election,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen all the time.”
The potentially easier path to a District Court seat drew candidates, Furkin said. After all, hypothetically, a candidate could win with just 5 percent of the vote.
Some candidates may have been looking for a second chance. Many have previously run in judicial races, noted Les Abramson, a professor at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law.
“And though they were unsuccessful, they probably felt pretty good about how their campaigns went, and it was worth the effort to run another campaign,” he said.
Kentucky judges are chosen in nonpartisan elections — a common, but not universal, approach among the states. In some states, judges are appointed; in others, they’re elected in partisan or nonpartisan races. Others mix the approach, with appointed judges who are later subject to retention elections.
In Kentucky, the District Court was created in the mid-1970s, when the state legislature phased out smaller courts, such as municipal courts, said Kurt Metzmeier, a law professor at U of L. The decision to elect judges drew ire then, as it continues to do today.
Abramson said the knock against electing judges cited most often is that many voters aren’t knowledgeable enough about the candidates and lack access to information to learn more. And requiring judges to be elected can tarnish the element of independence they are expected to bring to the bench.
“You don’t want judges to be obligated in any way to their contributors or their supporters when they’re doing their job,” he said.
Abramson said there has been discussion about nixing the system of electing district judges, but that would take a constitutional amendment.
District court judges earn an annual salary of about $112,000. They deal with cases involving minor offenses, such as traffic violation and probate matters.
“It’s the court that most citizens come in contact with,”Furkin said.
Probable cause hearings for felony offenses are also heard in district courts. In those hearings, charges could be dismissed or sent up to the circuit court. Juvenile cases also go through district court. And a judge can influence the trajectory of a young person’s life, Furkin said.
But a cluster of candidates can cause trouble for voters, as well as those aspiring for the seat, he said. For candidates, it can be tough to stand out from the pack. For voters, a crowded field makes it more difficult to be informed about each candidate.
Abramson said it’s estimated the winning candidate would need less than 15 percent of the vote to win. Still, he said that’s not a major concern.
“We have 19 more people on the ballot than we normally do if there were a primary,” he said. “You hope that everyone is capable of making that intelligent choice based on the information that’s available to them.”